La Raza Forum Targets Immigration

Times Staff Writer

One of the nation's largest Latino advocacy and civil rights organizations plans to meet in Los Angeles this weekend to instruct people how to mobilize and vote out those who fail to back generous new immigration laws.

The National Council of La Raza will highlight immigration at its annual conference beginning today, featuring a bipartisan lineup of such high-profile speakers as former President Clinton, Republican presidential political strategist Karl Rove, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The conference comes as the two chambers of Congress hold competing summer hearings on the issue, with the House stressing stronger border enforcement and the Senate promoting a broader approach that includes legalization for undocumented immigrants and more visas for family members and guest workers. Efforts to reconcile the two approaches have stalled.

"We're in a stalemate.... It looks dismal," said Janet Murguia, La Raza's president and chief executive officer. "We want people to walk away from our conference with clear steps they can take if nothing happens."

Murguia criticized the hearings as a "delaying tactic" that would give immigration control forces a chance to use the volatile issue in the November elections.

"The hearings suggest to me that there are some in Congress -- especially in the House -- who would prefer to have an issue as opposed to a solution," she said.

The nonprofit organization, based in Washington, D.C., claims 40,000 members and a network of nearly 300 affiliated community organizations that focus primarily on civil rights, immigration, economics, education and health.

Founded in 1968, the organization grew out of efforts to promote civil rights for Mexican Americans but soon expanded to embrace all of the subgroups among the nation's 40 million Latinos.

Murguia said those groups historically have championed separate issues tied to their ancestral countries: trade sanctions against Cuba, the political status of Puerto Rico. But the immigration issue has drawn all of them together in a striking way, she said.

"It has taken us a while to get comfortable under the same umbrella," Murguia said. But immigration "marches showed we can find solidarity and common ground to advance our community overall."

The conference, scheduled to run today through Tuesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center, is expected to draw 20,000 people. Forums will offer updates on the various immigration proposals and discuss such hot issues as tensions within the labor movement over guest worker programs and among various ethnic communities over immigration, poverty and other issues.

Clinton and Villaraigosa are scheduled to address the conference this morning, followed by a lunchtime speech by Schwarzenegger. A daylong workshop to help people apply for U.S. citizenship will be offered today in partnership with other Latino advocacy organizations. Murguia said the workshop would support Democracy Summer, a major national initiative to produce as many as 1 million new Latino citizens and voters this year.

In addition to immigration, the conference will focus on issues including health, education and economic empowerment.

Workshops will be offered on tax planning and mortgage lending, the universal preschool movement, teenage pregnancy and HIV and AIDS.

"Demographers say we are now the largest minority population in the country, but the challenge is how to leverage this growth into economic empowerment, political power and social advancement," Murguia said.

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